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South Korea's immediate neighbors are impacting the military help its giving Ukraine


In its quest for weapons to fight off Russian forces, Ukraine has recently turned to the world's sixth-largest arms exporter, South Korea. But so far, Seoul has only agreed to provide nonlethal aid. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, South Korea's relations with the powers that surround it have put it in a dilemma.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Earlier this month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a virtual and quite specific appeal to South Korea's parliament.



KUHN: "You have something that can be indispensable for us," he said - "armored vehicles, anti-aircraft, anti-tank and anti-ship weapons." Zelenskyy noted that South Korea also suffered an invasion by North Korea during the Korean War.

Kim Jong-dae, a former defense official and visiting professor at Yonsei University's Institute for North Korean Studies, says that this historical parallel resonates with South Koreans. And besides, he says, South Korea's chief ally has urged it to sell Ukraine weapons.

KIM JONG-DAE: (Through interpreter) I personally confirmed through the South Korean Defense Ministry that the U.S. acting ambassador has made the request to our government.

KUHN: Ukraine is especially interested in purchasing South Korea's Cheongung surface-to-air missiles. They're made by a company owned by the same family which owns LG Corporation, South Korea's fourth-largest conglomerate. But Kim says South Korea doesn't have stockpiles of those missiles to sell Ukraine, so they'd have to come off the front lines, where they're arrayed against North Korea. Kim Jong-dae explains that there's an added complication.

KIM: (Through interpreter) LG developed homegrown weapons with weapons technology transferred from Russia. In that sense, Russia has been the company's partner for the past 20 years.

KUHN: In other words, Ukraine wants to use South Korean missiles developed with help from Russia to kill Russians. Chun In-bum is a retired South Korean army lieutenant general. He says that Seoul's chief concern is this.

CHUN IN-BUM: If we provide lethal weaponry to a country that is in conflict with Russia, and Russia decides to provide technology to North Korea, that would affect the delicate balance that is created between these three countries.

KUHN: For example, Kim Jong-dae points out, North Korea could use some help figuring out how to deliver warheads from an intercontinental ballistic missile onto their targets.

KIM: (Through interpreter) North Korea has succeeded in putting missiles in orbit, but it doesn't have reentry technology yet. But that can be solved if Russia sends just five of its engineers.

KUHN: Kim notes reports that Russia has asked North Korea for ammunition and missiles. Russia has denied those reports, but Kim says such a thing is not inconceivable.

KIM: (Through interpreter) Just as Ukraine is asking South Korea for military support, Russia can ask North Korea for help. The probability is about the same.

KUHN: Kim says South Korea's dilemma is a bit like those faced by India and Israel, both of which have refrained from sanctioning Moscow. India relies on Russian weaponry in its confrontation with Pakistan, while Israel fears Russia could give more support to Iran.

The Ukraine issue will be an early test for South Korea's incoming president, Yoon Suk-yeol, who takes office next month. He says he wants to make South Korea more of a global player, but he could be constrained by the situation in South Korea's immediate neighborhood.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF DYLAN SITTS' "PEPPERMINT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.